For most of us travel is a great way to see the world, grow as a person, and experience new customs, people, food, and drink.
Travel is also good because it helps provide local people with jobs, contributes economically to help the local community improve its standard of living, and increased revenue and investment can be spent to improve infrastructure, roads, schools, maintain environmental and historical areas, etc. In addition, local communities can feel pride in sharing their culture with us, while we break down language barriers and learn from each other.
However, while tourism can provide many benefits, problems can occur when too many tourists visit a destination, and the local community and the environment struggle to cope with the number of visitors.
Often it is the natural beauty of a place that makes it a tourist attraction, but sometimes the local community and the environment suffer at the expense of increased tourism; without proper planning, places get polluted, with deforestation, erosion, and often endangerment of local wildlife and animals.
Additionally, increased tourism can put a strain on the natural resources that the local community depends on to survive; water, land, food, and energy.
Lastly, increased tourism can erode traditional values, and influence foreign customs that are in conflict with the local culture and way of life.
My first taste of irresponsible tourism was at Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand. Over-developed, crowded, everybody selling useless crap that was made in China and they thought tourists would like instead of traditional Thai souvenirs, dirty and polluted beaches, more tourists meant more locals turning to scams and deceptive tactics to rip people off, tours where you could see chained up and drugged up elephants and tigers, and young people selling their bodies to wealthy foreign tourists at night.
What once was a laid-back local community, popular with the odd backpacker and surfer, had become a mass developed cesspit of a tourist attraction. I fear that many other pristine beaches and unspoiled destinations in Thailand (and throughout the developing world) will become the same in 10 to 20 years' time.
Over the past seven months in my day job I’ve had the pleasure of creating and coordinating a project called the ‘Green Hotels and Responsible Tourism Initiative‘. This initiative aims to help and educate travelers and hotel owners about the benefits of responsible travel. How being a responsible traveler is more rewarding, more authentic, and better for the environment and the local community.
Respected academics and sustainability experts, Dr Sonya Graci and Jacqueline Kuehnel, have created a responsible traveler guide to teach us how we can preserve the environment and beneficially contribute to the local community before we travel, while we are traveling, and when we come back so that tourist attractions can be enjoyed for years to come.
Some of my favorite parts of the guide include:
You can improve your travel experiences by researching the destination before you go, learning a few words of the language, and respecting the customs, religion, and culture of the place you’re visiting. By doing this you will learn more about the people and the destination and your travel experience will be more fulfilling.
Eat at local restaurants and try the fresh produce that is sourced locally in the area. Try the local beer. Use tour guides that have lived in the area all of their life, so they can show you the “real” destination that you won’t find in any guidebook. The money you spend will be directly invested back into the community, rather than to an offshore multinational corporation.
Buy souvenirs made of indigenous materials from a local, versus mass-produced souvenirs which are often imported from China and have a bigger carbon footprint due to shipping. Buying these souvenirs at a fair price, or a little bit extra may provide much-needed financial support for a local and their family.
At Backpacker Travel we believe that it’s important to be a responsible traveler.
I hope that you will be a responsible traveler too, so that we, and future generations, can get a chance to enjoy natural attractions and unspoiled destinations, rather than a once beautiful part of the world which is now an over-developed, exploited, a skeleton of what it used to be.